Don't be evil, Netflix! Or annoying, in this case.

Back in the early days of Netflix, just after people began to believe that it wasn't some creepy mail-order, book-of-the-monthish semi-scam for draining your bank account, I remember feeling an odd counter-culture exhileration every time I recommended it to people. Blockbuster had driven indie video store after indie video store out of business, and now Netflix was sticking it to them with a remarkably well planned model for using old technology (the mail) and new (the internet) to get DVDs to customers all over the country. I remember telling friends and family members how amazing Netflix would be for art house movies, which would now be available to small and rural communities who would never have access to them in the theatres or in the meager selection at their local Blockbuster (oh the number of Blockbusters I have visited that don't have anything but wide releases, and nothing older than five years ago).

And then, at some point, Netflix went over to the dark side. Perhaps they were always there. But my innocent idealism died a little as light was shed on the company's corporate practices. First, there were the law suits that revealed a systematic practice of "throttling," which involves giving the customers who return movies most quickly (resulting in the least profit for Netflix) slightly inferior service to lower-volume users (the obsessive returners, like me, would often encounter overnight delays before their movies were sent out, or would receive movies out of order).

Then, as part of the legal settlement for a case about throttling and false advertising, Netflix granted its users a month of a higher plan (more DVDs at any one time) at no additional cost, but it was revealed that after that month had expired, they intended to keep users at the higher plan while charging them full price, rather than returning them automatically to their normal service. So, essentially, they were using the fa├žade of contrition as a marketing device to make more money off of their confused customers.

It was hard not to give up on them then. Or when the abysmal level of customer service (which for a time would only allow you to consult a very limited set of FAQs rather than pose a personalized question -- I guess they didn't relish getting thousands of "So, the more movies I return in a month, the more enthusiastically I make use of your service, the crappier you treat me?" type questions) was brought to the forefront as the company's CEO couldn't find Netflix's customer service number on the website when asked on "60 Minutes."

Just a couple of days ago, Netflix attempted to stem the loss of customers to Blockbuster (sigh), which allows you to return their mail-service DVDs to stores and get new movies immediately, by lowering a few of their plans by $1. Well, that might be great for new customers, but, from my point of view, $1 a month is less important than a history of treating your loyal customers (and Netflix has some VERY loyal customers) with respect.

This rant was sparked by an excellent post on the ArtsJournal's About Last Night blog, in which CAAF very astutely suggests that if Netflix really wants to win this battle against Blockbuster, they would operate on the same hours that the post office does. It has long been a thorn in my side (ok, so that is the kind of sheltered life I am leading) that Netflix warehouses don't operate on weekends, for (I can only assume) cost-saving purposes. But, I ask you, Netflix, wouldn't giving your customers as many movies as they couldn't possibly get their grubby little hands on in the 3-at-a-time (or 4, or 2...) program be less expensive than losing disgruntled people to Blockbuster in droves?

Netflix, you have an opportunity to provide a very good service to a lot of people, and in this case I think my idealism (you can provide a diverse and rich array of cultural experiences to people all over the country for a very affordable price!) is not incommensurate with good business. Happy customers will provide market dominance. To beat Blockbuster, prove that you have a different corporate ethos.